Vaclav & Lena, page 14
“Lena?” A response is required, and now the stall has become unsafe. She has to answer, because that’s part of pretending to be a person and not many selves looking at a spot. Not answering would give away her state. One of Lena’s selves is asking some of the other selves, “What is your state?” The conglomerate of selves is unsure of its state but is sure that its inability to produce an answer is a sign that the selves are not functioning as one, not enough to pretend. At least one of Lena’s selves is concerned that if she does not answer, she will give the smoking girls cause to worry about her. Another of Lena’s selves thinks that allowing them to worry about the state of Lena might be a good move. Yet another of Lena’s selves panics at this idea, rallies a strong contingent of pro-answering, propretending selves. Other selves watch the commotion.
Lena is sure that other people don’t have many selves. She is terrified that she doesn’t have a core self, an essential Lena. She feels that she used to but that she lost it along the way, that at some point it became buried, suffocated, and died, because when she looks beneath the chattering of the selves, nothing is there. Maybe the fractured feeling is taking hold because something is dead inside her, or missing.
Again, the voice. Lena starts talking quietly to herself: “If we have the capacity to make decisions about whether or not to reveal our state, then now is not the time to debate what the state is, in particular. What I’m saying is that if we have the capacity to decide, then we are in control, still, and should exercise that control.”
“Lena? Is that you? Are you okay?”
Lena again feels the mirror behind the back of her head and sees the infinite multiplying of her selves, and this feeling is unpleasant. This mirror behind my head, she thinks, is fuzzing my thoughts. Does everyone have so many selves? Do they just artificially align the selves? If you stand straight and look straight forward, you will not see the endless reflections of yourself in the mirror, because your own head will obscure them. Is this the solution, or are the many selves the solution?
“Lena?” This time the word Lena (Her name? How odd to have a name! To be Lena!) is being spoken by lips, lips on a face, and this face is floating on a floating head attached to no body, which has appeared upside down under the divider between Lena’s stall and the next.
“Hi, Serena,” some of the selves answer, and the other selves line up behind these selves, and things begin to settle a bit. Serena is bending over to look into Lena’s stall. Serena stands up and becomes feet again.
“Yeah, it’s her,” Serena says to the other set of feet in her stall. Then her head reappears under the divider.
“Are you okay?”
Lena looks at Serena’s face. Serena’s head is much lower than her heart. The way she is bending over and looking up at Lena is making her face do strange things. A big vein is sticking out on her forehead, and she is wearing dark eyeliner all around her eyes. Some people wear eyeliner to do something, to make their eyes look nice or something, to look sexy, but Serena seems to be wearing eyeliner just to wear a lot of eyeliner. Maybe she just wants to look more grown-up.
“Are you okay?” Serena asks again. Lena is admiring the bravery of wearing a lot of eyeliner just for the fuck of it. Lena realizes that she doesn’t do anything for the fuck of it, and she is disappointed in herself. Lena rarely even says the word fuck out loud.
“I’m worried about the vein on your forehead,” Lena says. This is so true that Lena hadn’t realized she was feeling it, the feeling emerged and was articulated instantly.
“You’re worried about my vein?” Serena asks.
“Are you guys smoking cigarettes in here?” She is not embarrassed by the stiff way she says cigarettes, which she usually feels uncomfortable saying. Maybe right now she could even say period and vagina and puberty and navel.
“Yeah. Sorry. Do you want one?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Again, she has answered honestly without thinking, without conniving. Lena is not used to saying exactly what she means without calibrating, and she has never smoked a cigarette.
“Do you want to come in here? There’s a ton of room. It’s the handicapped stall.”
“No,” says Lena. Serena passes her a cigarette under the stall divider, and then she passes her a lighter.
“I don’t know how to do this,” says Lena, unashamed, though she feels aware that this is not cool.
“Unlock your thing,” says Serena. Lena reaches up and feels for the lock but keeps her eyes focused on her spot. Serena’s feet come into her peripheral vision, and then they cross, and Serena’s butt is on the floor, and now Serena’s whole body is in her peripheral vision. Lena locks the coordinates of the spot into her memory. There it is. In the corner of that linoleum tile. Not the one that is part of this stall and part of the next stall. The first tile from the left that belongs to this stall only.
Lena shifts her focus from the spot and onto Serena’s face. Serena takes the cigarette out of Lena’s hand and lights it, then hands it back to her.
“Just breathe in a tiny little bit, not a lot,” Serena says.
“I’m not going to smoke it. I just want to hold it and do the flicking thing,” Lena tells her.
“Okay,” says Serena. Lena looks at Serena’s face. It has a lot of things going on all over it. There is the eyeliner, which is black, and there is makeup on her face that makes her seem a lot paler than she really is. Her hair is in pigtails, but it also has a lot of little braids in it, and it has a lot of little clips all over it too. Also, her eyebrows are really thin on purpose. Other than that, she has exactly the same face that she had when Lena first came to school, when they were nine, when Serena wore stupid trendy jeans just like everyone else before everyone became a kind of person, when they were all just trying to learn math and not pee in their pants.
Lena wants to tell Serena about this, how her face is the same, because it is interesting, but she is afraid that Serena might feel upset about it, that she might take it the wrong way, because she seems to want to look grown-up. Suddenly Lena is not being honest; she is not saying each thing she is thinking. Lena feels a sudden and extraordinary sadness about this space between them, between all people. Everyone is worried, and everyone is wearing something on purpose, but no one wants anyone to know about it, and no one wants anyone else to say anything at all about it. Everyone wants to go about as if they were a fantastic superhero, born into the world complete; no one wants to acknowledge that they are self-consciously creating themselves, but everyone is. Everyone is, Lena thinks.
“So why are you freaking out?” Serena asks.
“I think it is because I found this spot on the floor. It is unknowing and specific.”
“Yeah,” says Serena, nodding. Lena is surprised that Serena seems to understand. Then Lena thinks that Serena might just be agreeing to be nice, and there is maybe a fifty-fifty shot that Serena understands, and then Lena thinks that she herself is not one hundred percent sure about understanding the spot, but that she likes the way that Serena just nods and says “Yeah.” Then again, maybe the unknowing specificity was obvious to everyone and Serena had always known about it and Lena was just now discovering it. It wouldn’t be the first time that Lena would be surprised to discover something that everyone else had known all along.
“Also,” says Lena, not realizing until the word is vibrating all about in the bathroom air that there is an also, “it’s my birthday and I don’t know anything about when I was born.”
Lena realizes that she has to explain, that she should just go on and tell Serena her biggest thing, this thing that encapsulates so many other things but that generally could be called “I am not like everyone else, and the first part of my life is a wild, spiky ball of mess.”
“I was adopted when I was nine—” Lena starts.
“I know,” Serena interrupts. “Sorry, go ahead,” she says.
“Yeah, I think everyone knows it. I mean, it sounds kinda cool, you know? It makes you seem interesting, or mysterious.” While Serena is talking, Lena starts thinking about the mysteries in her life, which seem inextricably linked to her missing self. Maybe having so many things missing from her story, things she has been afraid to know, maybe this is the key to finding the part of her that seems to have gone missing, numb, dead, or worse.
“Yeah, I guess it is mysterious. The whole first part of my life is a mystery,” she says, “and I don’t think I want it to be a mystery anymore.”
THE PARENTS WHO DISAPPEARED, AND THE GIRL WHO WOULD NOT
Lena does not know where she was born. In a squat in Moscow? In a concrete apartment building in Brighton Beach? Someone knows—certainly Lena’s parents, wherever they might be, know—but Lena does not know. All Lena knows is that she turned up in Brooklyn, a tiny, parentless child. How she ended up in Brighton Beach is a mystery.
Lena tries to imagine what happened. Her parents came from Russia, and she was born in Brooklyn, or she was born in Russia and they brought her here. Then either they went back to Russia and left her, or they’re still in America somewhere. Either way, they leave Lena in Brighton Beach, and they disappear. Lena does not disappear. Lena is the girl who will not disappear but stays behind pitifully, like a dull stain. Lena’s parents go and leave Lena behind. With a babysitter? Here, watch the kid for a few hours, will ya? Da? On a doorstep? In a lobby? With a doorman? Perhaps they meant to take her, packed everything, all the tiny, torturous baby things, diapers and nipples and formula and tiny clothes and books for bedtime, and realized only too late, as their plane soared over the great stinky Atlantic, with comic slaps on the forehead, “The baby! We forgot the baby!”
Lena tries to put together a picture; she tries to imagine how she wound up where she did. Maybe something happened to her parents, new immigrants, and they tried desperately to get someone to care for her. She imagines that distant relatives were all around. Maybe her grandparents were still in Russia. The relatives, so happy to share vodka and news, to tighten relations (Third cousins, twice removed, but we grew up like brothers!), began to distance themselves (Fourth cousins. By marriage only, and that didn’t last. Not really technically even related, otherwise I would take the girl, absolutely, but with things as tight as they are, the price of everything, and to raise a kid and not even family, and where is her family? They should take responsibility!), and no one wanted her. Lena was passed, from here to there back to here and away again, and learned that she was a burden, and got quieter, and stayed in the background, watching, not to be a bother, and this was not appealing, and the people feel her quietness like a sound, and her shadowy small presence and her serious face like a heavy rock in their stomachs, and they did not want her around.
Lena does not know how it happened that she was placed in the care of a woman to whom she had no relation, but in the gel of Lena’s earliest memories, she is living with Radoslava Dvorakovskaya, whom she calls Grandmother but who is not her grandmother.
LENA IS A STAIN ON THE LIFE OF RADOSLAVA DVORAKOVSKAYA
The summer before Lena would turn five years old, she had been living with Radoslava for as long as she could remember. Lena was trapped alone in a little apartment building full of little apartments full of little old ladies in the Russian neighborhood called Brighton Beach, which was full of Russians, which was in Brooklyn, which was full of immigrants. The old ladies all looked the same; they were variations on a theme, with their head coverings and their medical-supply apparatus for walking slowly, painfully, to the grocery store to collect the many shopping bags necessary. Necessary for what? Necessary to give purpose to a day. Necessary to buy onions from the stand on the corner at Ocean Avenue, the ones at the supermarket, two pennies more per pound. A crime when down the street there are perfectly good onions, two pennies less. Who do they think they are, these supermarket people? The old ladies cannot be fooled.
The old ladies go to the stand to get the good onions, and come back. The next day they go to the butcher. All the ladies get dressed for the butcher in their something special. They sponge foundation on their faces in a color matching nothing, or matching perhaps the skin tone of a photograph from 1934. Then they dab rouge on top of that, and smear lipstick in the approximate area of their lips, lipstick that always seems to escape the lips and advance onto the face through deep trenches around the mouth. For the butcher, some women even take their hair out of their curlers. For the butcher, they are dressed and polished and smelling of perfume that says, “I am wearing perfume; it is from a bottle; I put it on this morning, both before and after I pulled on my support hose.”
Radoslava always told Lena that the butcher was like all the other men, everywhere. The butcher, she said, has what you need, knows that you will pay. He knows that you are hungry, but that you will pretend you are not hungry. He smiles at you, calls you gently by your name, and it sounds so nice in his tough, sweet, manly mouth, but he will steal from you and give what is yours to another woman if you are not careful, so you must be careful. Like all men! But if you want what is yours, then smile at him, show him that you know about meat, that you are not pushy, that you trust him (but never trust him). Ask yourself, Radoslava would tell Lena, is he giving maybe an extra quarter-pound, no charge? Is he giving the leanest part? Is he using the freshest or the scraps from yesterday, dried out? If he is not giving the best to you, who is getting it?
Radoslava was like a million other old ladies in their shmatas puttering around the sidewalks of Brighton Beach, doing errands, waiting to die in the new world, where their daughters took advantage of a healthy flourishing capitalist market and had their acrylic nails adorned with plastic gems.
Radoslava Dvorakovskaya liked to feel that she was special, because she suffered more than most. She made a point of leaving her apartment as infrequently as possible. She told her friends, the other ladies who puttered over for tea and cookies, that she was terrified that a black person would mug her. Or one of their own sons, who were so disrespectful and committing so many crimes so you didn’t know who to trust. Or she was terrified that she would fall down and break her hip just like Mrs. Galipova, who could no longer do for herself so that her sons and daughters put her in that godforsaken nursing home, which was worse than hell. Or that she would get run over and killed by one of these crazy taxi drivers. These were the reasons.
The real reason that Radoslava Dvorakovskaya did not leave the apartment was that she was lazy and fat and did not like to walk. She had always been this way; she had always been an unkind and unhelpful person; as a child she was lazy and spiteful, and age had given her beautiful excuses to do exactly what she had always wanted. She complained with vigor that being old was awful, a shame, and she moaned about how horrible it was, but really, truthfully, old age was Radoslava’s dream come true.
And then there was Lena. Lena ruined everything. This was no secret. Radoslava Dvorakovskaya would yell to the girl in Russian, “Yelena! I am old and I am dying, and you have ruined my last years of peace.” There were usually other people around, as Radoslava Dvorakovskaya often had visitors. Lena was always around. Lena was shy and quiet, and she did not make friends with the other children in the big apartment building and on the street. She was terrified of these children, who knew one another already, and ran around, and yelled, and made a lot of loud noise. She could not imagine interacting with them. When she and Rad
The day that Lena most remembers hearing about her mother, she was playing in the shag carpeting. She would lie on her belly in this carpeting, which was green, and imagine that it was a lush forest, or a jungle, and she would walk her fingers through the jungle of the pile, tiny, pale, round explorers in a noodle wilderness. Her fingers had conversations with one another, or they simply explored, avoiding the dangers that lurked. Surely there were tigers about! Even lions! Or those black panther cats!
While Lena played with the rug, Radoslava Dvorakovskaya would sit several feet away, at the kitchen table, with the friends who had come by to sit with her and commiserate. They smoked and they drank tea, and picked at the pile of dry pastries that sat in the middle of the table, and gossiped and kvetched in Russian.
“Why not give her to someone else? Why should you have this burden?” This from Mrs. Yablokov, who sat with Radoslava Dvorakovskaya at the table on this day, whose husband was alive, and whose sons were in high school and were handsome, and were, according to Mrs. Yablokov, studying to be doctors. Mrs. Yablokov did not work, which was rare, but went about to every apartment to tell sad stories of other people and to become upset about them. Her life was very difficult, and she felt everyone’s pain so much that she always had to share it with everyone else, and then she would take a bit of everyone else’s pain, and she would talk and talk and make sure that everyone was always aware of everyone else’s suffering.
If you had fallen down and bruised your ankle, she would tell you about the neighbor woman who died in her sleep.
“You think that’s bad? You should see Malka. In so much pain she can’t move! Bruised ankle, you should be so lucky. This is pain. This is life. Isn’t it terrible? It is terrible. Oh, I can’t stand it anymore, it is terrible. So are you able to dress yourself? I should think not. Just terrible, oh, I feel so terrible for you. The shame.”